Pastor Don's Journal Articles
"You may have the universe if I may have Italy" --Giuseppe Verdi
We have taken steps back in time this week and find ourselves now in the Tuscan countryside, near the tiny village of Monticchiello. All around the rambling house that we have rented, as far as the eye can see, are undulating hills of green and brown. Here and there copses of trees and everywhere vineyards planted in neat rows. Cyprus trees point like church steeples to the blue sky above us. We sleep each evening with our windows and their heavy wooden shutters open wide. There's no air conditioning, and the days are hot, but a gentle breeze frequently surprises and graces us. There are a few flies and mosquitoes let in, yes-- but you take your pick between them and the heat.
Last week we were in Austria with our friend, Christina. Many of her friends became ours 4 years ago when last we visited, so we caught up with them all in little dinner parties and lunches. Christina is a hostess like Audrey, and she is the center of all these networks of people. Her parties lasted long into the night as no one ever seemed to want to leave.
One day we went to the top of a high observation tower, Pyramiden Kogel, and glimpsed much of Carinthia below. Another day we rode a cable lift up to the peak of Lussari Mountain, just over the border into Italy, and got a preview of the beautiful country that we are enjoying now.
I spent some time in Austria with British missionary David James and learned all about his work in evangelism and church planting. The work is slow, and it's easy to get impatient and discouraged-- but David and Linda have lived there 18 years by now. A clear sense of "call" (he described how God used Isaiah 54 and 55 to get his attention) is what strengthens them and keeps them going. We talked about how he and his team go about building bridges to the young and unchurched of the area." I ask them their hopes for the future", he said, "and often they do not have any at all." From there comes an eventual transition to the wonderful hope that Christians have --and that they can have, too--in Jesus.
I think that I encouraged this man a bit, and I was sure refreshed by his company, too. I know that I planted in his heart the idea for a Sabbatical of his own one day.
We took the midnight train south to Florence on Friday night, cramped in a sleeping compartment with two strangers, rumbling through the mountains and dozing in fits and starts until morning. We had most of the next day in that great Renaissance city and enjoyed visiting the Accademia, where we saw Michelangelo's statue of David, and then another gallery where we saw works of art from the 12th century onward. The greatest art in the history of the world has been that which depicts the biblical stories that are so much a part of our faith. And so very much of it centers on the crucifixion of Christ-- that scene at the very heart of our faith. "We have been redeemed by the precious blood of Christ" (1 Peter 1:19), the spotless lamb " slain from the foundation of the earth", so you could take an unbeliever through any art museum in Europe and share the gospel with her in a vivid, compelling way.
Late Saturday afternoon we took another train to Chiusi, Italy, where we were met by dear friends from the United States. They drove us on switchback roads for 45 minutes up to the villa where we are staying the week. And "villa" is the right word. What a place! Every porch and every window opens to grand vistas of the landscape around us. Our hosts are non - English speakers who live very close by but have remained invisible to us.
I can't quit humming the theme music to "The Godfather".
Eddie and Lori Cassada have often traveled with us over the years, but this time their 24 year old daughter, Elizabeth, is with us, too. She is an SBC "journeyman" right now, living and working in Rome. I held her on the day that she was born and prayed that God would use her in some great way to make a difference in the world ( just like I pray for little babies still)-- and look what happened! Now over meals of spaghetti or fruit and cheese, or when climbing the cobblestone streets of Monticchiello looking for gelato, I hear the stories of what this young lady is doing with the one life God has given her, sometimes in the Italian language that she is learning. I could not be prouder.
Courtney is also an IMB missionary journeyman and is here with us for the week. She is from the Kingsport, Tennessee area and is a lovely young woman with a great sense of humor, equally committed to serving God. She and Elizabeth work together, teaching English and reaching out to university students. We are sharing our stories and experiences with these girls, giving advice as we can, and are ourselves being encouraged by their faith and enthusiasm (Romans 1:11).
In the evenings we have walked the streets of nearby villages, dating from the 12th century or even earlier--and looking every bit their age. The full, perigee moon over our heads, giving light when the way gets a little dark. Sunday night, after being blessed by the streamed service from FBCA, we had dinner in the larger village of Pienza, and then wandered into a little church there for a concert of classical violin. A pleasant cultural surprise at the end of the day-- and it was free!
We plan to drive to Siena on Thursday, to see the horses.
The late Vance Havner famously advised: "Come apart for awhile, or you will come apart in a while". One of the purposes of this Sabbatical has been to break with the normal routine and busyness of my life in order to restore the soul and maybe build new, healthier rhythms for the future. Reading good books, having conversations with friends old and new, even long walks under the hot Tuscan sun ...it is happening.
"We can only be said to be alive in those moments when our hearts are conscious of our treasures", wrote Thornton Wilder. Here in these beautiful hills, sipping my cappuccino, surrounded by close friends and a wife across the table who loves me and has been partner to me through almost all of my life's journey by now...I do feel very much alive!